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Witness Testimony of C. Douglas Sterner, Colorado State Board of Veterans Affairs, Past Chairman

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on behalf of my fellow veterans in Southern Colorado.

On February 4, 1945, in heavy fighting in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, Army Private Harold E. Hissong was killed in action. On learning of his sacrifice, half-a-world away in the small town of Somers, Montana, his mother Florence Hissong planted a tree in front of the entrance to her home overlooking the Flathead Lake.

Exactly five years later, nearly to the day, I was born in nearby Kalispell. In many ways I grew up alongside that tree, for I could not miss it every time I visited my grandmother. As a growing boy, each time I saw it, that tree stood always as a reminder not only of the uncle that I never knew, but of the great price of freedom and the responsibility passed on to every new generation to answer its own call to duty whenever the rights of free people are threatened anywhere in our world. When my day came I understood my duty, and was privileged to serve my nation during two tours of duty in Vietnam. I was in no small part inspired by the lessons learned from a tree planted in honor of a dead American hero.

I have come to learn and understand that memorials are NOT about those who went before; those who either individually or collectively are called to mind by such memorials. Rather, those memorials stand as an example, and as a beacon, to inspire and guide future generations of Americans. You see, the location of our Veterans cemeteries is not so much about the convenience with which we place our dead, as it is how convenient we make it for those who have lost a loved one to be constantly reminded, and inspired, by monuments reflecting their selfless service to America.

The question before the committee today is, "Is the VA Cemetery Construction Policy Meeting the Needs of Today's Veterans and their Families." I applaud the goal set forth by the VA in the last several years of locating suitable Veterans burial locations within 75 miles of their hometown. As a policy this echoes the ethos of the warrior that says, "I will never leave a comrade behind." No matter where in the world brave young men and women in service to our nation fall, they know that their comrades will do all in their power, to and including risking and even sacrificing their own life, to insure that every fallen hero will return home.

For the soldier in the field, insuring that a fallen comrade is recovered and returned home is not predicated upon policies established within the constraints of budgets or convenience, it is a solemn obligation to those who served and sacrificed. As a nation, we have no less a solemn obligation to insure that the final resting place of our veterans be in close proximity to their home, not only out of some moral obligation, but also as a sign of respect to the living who remember them fondly.

My home town is Pueblo, Colorado, only 30 miles south of where we are meeting today. Though it is my adopted hometown, I have come to love it for a unique sharing of the values I hold dear. Fifteen years ago Pueblo was recognized by the United States Congress as America's Home Of Heroes due that fact that at that time it was the only city in America to have four sons who were living recipients of our highest award for military valor, the Medal of Honor.

It should not however, be surprising that Pueblo would produce four such heroes in three different wars over the span of only 24 years. Pueblo is the Home Of Heroes not only because of the four men who earned the Medal of Honor, but also because of the thousands of others who served with pride and patriotism when duty called. The 2000 census reflected that Pueblo, Colorado, numbered among the top five cities in America with populations over 100,000, in terms of the percentage of living World War II veterans. Such dedication to service is endemic to our community which believes strongly in duty, honor, country, and in the obligation to serve. In 1970 Pueblo comprised only 5% of our state's population, yet during the Vietnam War of that period, Pueblo sons and daughters reflected nearly 10% of our state's more than 600 soldiers killed in action. Our city is today, in fact, home of the Colorado State Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Not only do the members of our community believe in personal service, we are committed to remembering all those who have served.

Eight years ago two of our Medal of Honor recipients died within months of each other. Bill Crawford, who earned the Medal of Honor in World War II, was buried at the Air Force Academy cemetery, having established a relationship with that institution in the later years of his life when he worked there as a lowly but dedicated janitor. Colonel Carl Sitter who earned the Silver Star in World War II and the Medal of Honor in Korea, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, where today 383 other Medal of Honor recipients rest.

Raymond G. "Jerry" Murphy was born and raised in Pueblo, and during the Korean War became the third Puebloan in less than ten years to earn the Medal of Honor. In later years he chose to live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he worked in the Veterans Administration to help other veterans. When Mr. Murphy became seriously ill a few years ago however, he return home to Pueblo, to live in the Veterans Nursing Home there.

On April 6, 2007, Jerry Murphy passed away in his home town of Pueblo. Although funeral services were held in his home town, Mr. Murphy was subsequently transported far south to the Santa Fe National Cemetery for burial. You see, there exists today no Veterans cemetery within 90 miles of Pueblo to insure that Mr. Murphy or, for that matter Mr. Crawford or Mr. Sitter, could have returned home for their final journey.

In point of fact, the VA Cemetery Construction Policy failed these three distinguished heroes, as well as the people of Pueblo who remember them fondly. It continues to fail the families of a city of more than 100,000 citizens, comprising one of the highest percentages of World War II veterans…and in fact a uniquely high percentage of veterans of all recent wars…who must travel more than 100 miles and navigate the traffic of Metropolitan Denver, to pay respects to loved ones buried at Fort Logan.

Please consider the needs of our city as well as the entire Southern Colorado Region, remembering our obligation to our veterans and their families, and provide for a much-needed National Cemetery in our area so that our heroes will rest in peace and dignity where they belong--at home in Southern Colorado.

This concludes my oral statement to the Committee.

EXHIBITS

VETERAN NUMBERS & STATICS:[1]

As a state, Colorado veteran statistics rank within the median of the overall national numbers. Based upon on the 2000 Census, Colorado ranks 22d in the nation in overall population and 21st nationally in the percentage of adults over age 18 who are veterans of military service. Specifically, the 2000 Census counted a total civilian adult population in Colorado of  3,177,044, of which 446,385 were identified as Veterans. As such, Colorado veterans represent 16.5% of the state's adult civilian population, a number that is 2% higher than the national average of 14.5%.

The burial needs of Colorado's active duty military personnel killed in the current Global War on Terrorism, as well as surviving veterans of wars past, are addressed primarily in three of four National or State Veterans Cemeteries as follows:

COLORADO NATIONAL & STATE VETERANS CEMETERIES

1.     Fort Logan National Cemetery, located in the heart of metropolitan Denver, is the largest Veterans Cemetery in Colorado. Nearly 100,000 veterans have been buried at Fort Logan since 1889.
     NINE of Colorado's ten largest cities lie within the 75-mile catchment area of Fort Logan, and SEVEN of these NINE comprise the Denver-Metropolitan area with a population of 1.5 million adult citizens. Two of these nine largest cities border the Fort Logan catchment area with Colorado Springs (the 2d largest Colorado City) 67 miles from Fort Logan and Fort Collins (the 5th largest city) lying 72.5 miles from Fort Logan. This means that in all, nearly TWO MILLION Colorado citizens reside within the catchment area of Fort Logan which, by all estimates, based on current burial rates, will reach capacity by the year 2020.
     The southern Colorado city of Pueblo is the ONLY city in the state with a population greater than 100,000 that is totally outside Fort Logan's catchment area at a driving distance of 111 miles from that site.

2.     Fort Lyons National Cemetery is the only other National Veterans Cemetery in Colo rado. Located in the eastern plains, the nearest large city is Pueblo, which is 15 miles beyond the catchment area at 90.4 miles. Only 11 of Fort Lyons' 52 acres have been developed, providing burial for a total of 3,042 eligible veterans and family members. Through Fiscal Year 2007, Fort Lyons has buried 2,144 persons and, without expansion in the near future, that facility can accommodate fewer than 1,000 additional burials. That reality is critical in light of the fact that this is an area of our state that has one of the highest percentages of veterans among the population.

3.     The Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado is one of 2 State Veterans Cemeteries located in Colorado. Opened in 2002, it adequately addresses veterans burial needs on Colorado's Western Slope and, with a present capacity of more than 3,000 burials on the property's 22.5 acres, it will be sufficient to meet the needs of Veterans and their families west of the Continental Divide for decades to come. Due to its far-west location however, the cemetery's impact on areas of concern in today's hearing are virtually nil.

4.     The Colorado State Veterans Center At Homelake is the only Veterans' burial facility located entirely in the area defined as the Southern Colorado Region. The grounds of that facility are nearly full and it offers fewer than ten burial sites at the time of this hearing. The Homelake cemetery has virtually no current positive impact on addressing the future burial needs of veterans in the southern counties of Colorado.

Figure 1: National & State Veterans Cemeteries in Colorado

The three operational cemeteries accepting Veteran burials in Colorado are reflected above with the green circles denoting a catchment area with a 75 mile radius. The 29 counties defined in H.R. 1660 as comprising the "Southern Colorado Region" are within the area shaded red.

Figure 1 clearly demonstrates that the city of Colorado Springs, our state's second largest city, lies at the far edge of the catchment area for Fort Logan National Cemetery. Pueblo, our state's ninth largest city, lies 15 miles outside the catchment area for Fort Lyon National Cemetery and 36 miles beyond the catchment area of Fort Logan. The desperate need for a National cemetery in this region becomes even more imperative in light of the demographics of these two cities, as well as that of the rural areas farther south and west.

COLORADO VETERANS CORRIDOR

The 2000 Census demonstrated that Colorado as a whole has a Veterans population 2% above the National average. Even more striking is a Veterans demographic for the geographical area that runs from Colorado Springs, south through Pueblo to the New Mexico border, and west into the Colorado Rocky Mountains. This area, comprising 9 of the 29 counties defined as the "Southern Colorado Region" were found in the 2000 count to have a veterans population far exceeding the national average.

Figure 2: Colorado Veterans Corridor

map of Colorado Veterans Corridor

Counties denoted above in light blue have Veterans populations significantly larger than the National average, and those counties shaded in the dark blue were found to have veterans populations one-and-a-half times the National average. This high proportion of veterans in Southern Colorado is further reflected in the statistics for the two largest cities in the Veterans' Corridor.

COLORADO SPRINGS VETERAN POPULATION

The centennial count identified more than 50,000 veterans living in Colorado Springs (nearly 75,000 in El Paso County), a number which at that time indicated a veterans population comprising more than 20% of the total civilian adult population of Colorado's second largest city. Of  250 American cities with a population in excess of 100,000, Colorado Springs ranked 5th in the nation in terms of its percentage of veterans:

Figure 3: Ten Major Cities with high Veteran Populations

Ten Places of 100,000 or More With the Highest Percentage of Veterans in the Civilian Population Aged 18 and Over:  2000
(Data based on sample.  For information on confidentiality protection, sampling error, nonsampling error and definitions, see www.census.gov/prod/cen20000/doc/sf3.pdf)

Place

Number
of veterans

Percent of
veterans

90-percent
confidence
 interval

Hampton VA 28,312 27.1 26.5-27.8
Clarksville, TN 15,319 24.4 23.7-25.1
Fayetteville, NC 19,060 23.7 23.0-24.4
Virginia Beach, VA 60,260 21.7 21.4-22.1
Colorado Springs, CO 51,609 20.2 19.9-20.6
Norfolk, VA 30,068 19.9 19.5-20.4
Newport News, VA 24,021 19.9 19.4-20.4
Columbus, GA* 24,984 19.6 19.1-20.1
Chesapeake, VA 25,621 18.9 18.4-19.4
Portsmouth, VA 12,955 18.4 17.8-19.1

Among these same 250 major American cities:

  • Colorado Springs ranks 3d in the nation with the highest percentage (7.8%) of Vietnam War and Vietnam era veterans (20,011).
  • Colorado Springs ranks 8th in the nation with the highest percentage (5.7%) of Gulf War veterans (14,650).

Of further significance is a steady migration of retiring active duty military personnel into the Pikes Peak region, in no small part due to the location of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, and other military posts in the vicinity. At a time when the percentage of veterans is declining through attrition in most communities across the nation, Colorado Springs continues to experience an increasing number of military retirees that may in fact, push the 2010 enumeration well above the already-high percentage revealed eight years ago.

While northern El Paso County falls within the catchment area for the Fort Logan National Cemetery, southern El Paso County including the south side of Colorado Springs and popular military retirement areas at Fountain and Security outside Fort Carson are beyond the catchment area. Considering that the Fort Logan facility is already overburdened to meet the needs of eight of our State's largest cities, including the Denver-Metropolitan Area, construction of a new National Veterans Cemetery south of Colorado Springs would both relieve pressure on the existing facility to the north, and provide a convenient and dignified burial location for the many families of Colorado Springs' significant veterans population.

PUEBLO VETERAN POPULATION

Thirty miles south of Colorado Springs and well beyond the catchment area of Fort Logan and Fort Lyons National Cemeteries is the city of Pueblo, the only Colorado city with a population in excess of 100,000 residents that has no convenient Veterans cemetery. Pueblo is the ninth largest city in Colorado and ranks 242d in size among the 254 American cities with populations over 100,000. Pueblo is however, a city whose populace has risen to the call of duty time and again in wars of the past, in far greater numbers than almost any other large city.

Of the 254 largest American cities:

  • Pueblo ranks 4th in the nation with the highest percentage (4.2%) of World War II veterans (3,201)
  • Pueblo ranks 9th in the nation with the highest percentage (2.8%) of Korean War veterans (2,133).

As a community the citizens of Pueblo have demonstrated not only an uncommon willingness to serve their nation in time of war, but also an admirable sense of community pride in its sons and daughters currently on active duty, as well as its veterans of past wars. In 1993 Pueblo was recognized by the United States Congress as America's Home Of Heroes due the fact that is was the ONLY city in America with four living recipients of the Medal of Honor. This symbolizes a tradition of valor that extends far beyond these four distinguished hometown heroes; more than FIFTEEN Pueblo servicemen have received one of the military's top two levels of awards, more than any Colorado city other than Denver.

In honor of its Veterans, Pueblo is the site of one of only FOUR National Medal of Honor memorials, and is home to the Colorado State Vietnam War Memorial. Currently development is underway on Pueblo's Historic Riverwalk Project for a Veterans Bridge to honor local veterans of all wars, as well as those who have served in peace time.

The proudly patriotic citizenry of Pueblo, a city that was once described by a visiting Medal of Honor recipient as "The most patriotic city in America," have no convenient and appropriate place to bury our dead among their comrades in arms. For the veterans who reside in America's Home Of Heroes, and the surviving family members who have gone to uncommon efforts to insure that their service is never forgotten, the VA Cemetery Construction Policy is NOT Meeting the Needs of Today's Veterans and their Families.

ENUMERATION:

Nine of the 29 Colorado counties identified as the "Southern Colorado Region" lie within the area I have defined herein as the Colorado Veterans Corridor (Figure 2). Five of these nine counties have veteran populations well above the national average (12.7%), ranging from 18.9 to 21.8%. Based upon the 2000 Census, veterans number by county as follows:

County

%

Male
Under 64

Male
Over 64

Female
Under 64

Female
Over 64

Total
Veterans

Custer County

21.8%

                353

              228

               13

              -  

                594

El Paso County

21.4%

            51,007

          14,902

           8,126

            955

            74,990

Fremont County

21.3%

              5,267

            2,135

              324

             62

              7,788

Huerfano County

18.9%

                661

              483

               35

             17

1,196

Teller County

19.9%

2,204

557

253

              -  

              3,014

 

21%

            59,492

          18,305

           8,751

         1,034

87,583

The other four counties in this corridor have veteran populations of between 15.7- 17.7% of the total adult civilian population. Those numbers are reflected as:

County

%

Male
Under 64

Male
Over 64

Female
Under 64

Female
Over 64

Total
Veterans

Bent County

17.7%

                504

              283

               18

               3

                808

Crowley County

16.9%

                581

              167

               10

              -  

                758

Las Animas Cty.  

16.0%

              1,030

              733

               67

             14

              1,844

Otero County

15.7%

              1,352

              680

               92

             15

              2,139

Pueblo County

16.7%

            10,001

            6,528

              837

            234

            17,600

 

16.6%

            13,468

            8,391

           1,024

            266

            23,150

*Otero County is NOT listed among the 29 counties comprising the Southern Colorado Region in H.R. 1660, but it IS surrounded on all sides by counties that are, and lies within the catchment area of the proposed National Cemetery.

The remaining 20 counties defined as located within the Southern Colorado Region have an aggregate population of more than 350,000 adult civilians and a veteran population that averages 14.2% of the adult population. A total of  38,254 veterans were counted in these 20 counties in the 2000 census.

Based upon this data, a total of 148,987 veterans would be directly impacted by location of a new Veterans Cemetery in southern Colorado. This exceeds the VA's desired population impact by nearly 150%. More than 50,000 of these veterans enumerated above currently reside more than 100 miles from the nearest Veterans cemetery and a large number of those live more than 150 miles from the nearest such facility.

OUTLOOK FOR THE FUTURE

More than 16 million men and women served in military service during World War II, more than at any other period in our nation's history. Six decades after that war the Veterans Cemetery System has become strained by their burial needs. Veterans of that war continue to pass away in large numbers in a daily basis, further bringing our veterans cemeteries to capacity or near-capacity.

In the year 2000 the World War II veteran population numbered 5.7 million, or 21.7% of America's veteran population. Those numbers were exceeded only by Vietnam War and Vietnam era veterans which numbered 8.4 million, comprising 31.7% of our Nation's veteran population. The average age of these, our largest block of living veterans (those who served from 1964 - 1975) presently averages 61.3 years of age. Within a decade the Vietnam veterans, following closely behind the loss of nearly all of our World War II and our 4 million Korean War veterans, will be faced with Veterans cemeteries that have reached capacity and closed to further burial. This will be especially significant in the Southern Colorado Region which boasts one of the largest Vietnam veteran populations in America. As previously noted, Colorado Springs has the 3d highest percentage of Vietnam Veterans of any of our country's 250 largest cities. Other areas of Southern Colorado are also populated by large segments of the Vietnam War era veterans. (During that war the city of Pueblo lost 58 of its hometown heroes, a death toll numerically exceeded only by Denver. While comprising only 5% of Colorado's total populace in 1970, Pueblo alone suffered 10% of the state's Vietnam War casualties. Colorado Springs had the third-highest number of Vietnam War casualties, with 46 local heroes killed in that war.)

CONCLUSIONS:

The need for a Veterans cemetery to serve the Southern Colorado Region is obvious.

  1. This region has proportionally one of the highest percentages of veterans in America.
  2. Both geographically and demographically, the vast majority of the veterans in this region and their families are located far beyond the catchment area of any existing veterans cemetery.
  3. Fort Logan National Cemetery, which borders a limited number of these affected areas is already addressing the demands of eight of Colorado's ten largest cities and will likely reach capacity within little more than a decade.
  4. Establishment of a National Veterans Cemetery in the Southern Colorado Region is not only practical to addressing future capacity problems at Fort Logan and expansion and development at Fort Lyon, it is the RIGHT THING TO DO for a population that has answered the call to duty in admirable numbers.

The VA's goal of locating Veterans cemeteries within a 75-mile radius of a hero's home town, or that of the family which remembers and honors that veteran, is NOT being met for tens of thousands of military veterans in Southern Colorado. This can and should be addressed by construction of a National Veterans Cemetery in the Southern Colorado Region.

Furthermore, there are few areas in America that better exemplify the stated vision of the National Cemetery Administration that: "Every national cemetery will be a place that inspires visitors to understand and appreciate the service and sacrifice of our Nation's veterans."

The Pikes Peak region is not only inspirational with its high mountains and natural wonders, it is home to the U.S. Air Force Academy, the proud tradition of the "Mountain Post" at Fort Carson, and many other facilities where young men and women continue a tradition of service that dates back to the Revolutionary War. The patriarch of Colorado Springs, William Jackson Palmer, was in fact a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his heroic leadership in the War Between the States, and chose regularly to reunite the men of his regiment at his mountain residence in the decades that followed the war.

Pueblo has a history of service and valor that can be matched by few cities in America. In traditions of the G.A.R. following the War Between the States which inspired programs of reverence for our military veterans, Pueblo is home to multiple veterans memorials and regularly hosts public, patriotic programs to honor and remember our heroes.

Florence, Colorado, just 30 miles south of Colorado Springs and 25 miles west of Pueblo is named for the wife of Navy Commodore Byron McCandless, a hero of World War I who later designed the Flag of our Commander in Chief, as well as the Presidential Seal. His son became one of the great heroes of World War II, earning the Medal of Honor, and his own son, Bruce McCandless, II, continued that tradition of service as a Naval Officer and NASA astronaut, becoming the first man to walk in space untethered.

Such accounts of service, sacrifice, and heroism abound in the Southern Colorado Region, a largely rural area with deeply-rooted traditions of military service. There can be few places so emotionally inspiring and few locations with more awe-inspiring landscape as this area of our nation.

Indeed as a veteran myself, I can think of few places I would rather someday lie than beneath the towering mountains from which more than a century ago Katharine Lee Bates looked down and, personally inspired by what she saw, penned the words that mean so much to every American veteran: "America the Beautiful."


[1] Unless otherwise cited, all statistics are based upon the 2000 Census, as reported in "Veterans: 2000, Census Brief," U.S. Census Bureau, Issued May 2003